Detroit’s Rivertown readies for improvements to waterfront

Detroit’s Rivertown readies for improvements to waterfront
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These days Chip Rohde finds himself a little busier than usual.

As spokesperson for the Rivertown Detroit Association, his job is keeping residents and businesses in neighborhoods adjacent to the city’s popular waterfront excited about investments, events and attractions there.

While downtown areas, including what Rohde calls the “sliver on the river,” continue attracting revitalization, much of it has moved east, including recent announcements of multi-million-dollar retail and housing efforts.

Less explored for development has been the stretch of riverfront along West Jefferson Avenue, where Rohde says there has been growing interest from many who see its potential.

Rivertown Detroit Association’s spokesperson Chip Rohde has seen a tremendous increase in the interest in Rivertown over the last 12 months. Photo courtesy of C. Rohde

“We’ve been cruising along,” says Rohde, “But within the last 12 months we’ve just seen a tremendous increase in the interest in Rivertown.

“Detroit’s resurgence has created more demand from people who want to move downtown. Rents and values have gone up and values of condominiums have gone up and are making investments more profitable and, therefore, more probable,” he says.

Adding to the attention is the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy’s work in West Riverfront Park, the property at 1801 West Jefferson. Formerly the site of a newspaper printing facility, the conservancy bought the land from the Detroit Free Press 10 years ago.

“Our ultimate vision is five-and-a-half miles of the revitalized riverfront,” says Mark Pasco, communications director for the non-profit development organization. “The progress we’re making is tremendous because it means more of the riverfront for people to enjoy and that people in the city of Detroit can use.”

The vision for West Riverfront Park includes three new pathways linking the waterfront to West Jefferson, along with benches and green space to be used for outdoor events. The park’s section of the RiverWalk, which extends west from Belle Isle past the Renaissance Center, has already been expanded in width to 30 feet to attract walkers, joggers, bicyclists and fishing. Security cameras and new lighting are among updates installed.

Other plans to boost activity along the river’s western edge include the conservancy’s competition for a chance to create a visionary project to update the park. Through a $345,000 grant from the Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation, teams were invited to pitch a winning concept. Four finalists have been chosen. The Detroit Riverfront Conservancy will announce its top pick in February 2018.

Profitable return on investment is the main reason for increased private interest in developing the water’s edge, Rohde says. Rivertown Detroit is a non-profit, volunteer community outreach organization for businesses and residents, who regularly meet at various locations along the Jefferson Avenue corridor, where he says neighbors get first-hand impressions to understand the intent of developers.

“The RiverWalk area will look something like downtown Chicago in the future.” -Scott Bradley, owner, Robinson Furniture

“The majority of the people who live and work in Rivertown are owner-operators,” says Rohde. “You find people who are making their living from the businesses that they have here. [Local interest has] affected everybody.”

One of those businesses is Robinson Furniture, at 3180 East Jefferson Avenue. Owner Scott Bradley says he’s noticed changes at Belle Isle as well as on Jefferson Avenue over the past six years in business, like the construction of bike lanes. He looks forward to seeing more activity expand west, even going so far as to predict the RiverWalk area will look something like downtown Chicago in the future.

“I’ve seen what happened to the RiverWalk and how great it’s come along,” says Bradley. “It’s been fantastic. It’s been total change.”

Before renewed investments came into the river section of the city, Bradley says it was easy to find housing, but now vacancies are few.

“We do a lot of deliveries in the area,” he says. “People are hunting for apartments all the time. It’s like supply and demand. Back in the day, you could find a spot all day long. Now it’s very hard. If you do, it’s a lot more money than it was years ago.”

Along with the Detroit River’s value as, arguably, the city’s most valuable asset, Pasco says development of the western waterfront addresses the community’s need for recreation and leisure outlets. Support from the city and organizations like Rivertown play a part.

“The riverfront is playing a major role in the revitalization of Detroit where people come together and enjoy themselves,” says Pasco. “I think it’s a great examination of what can happen when people work at it.”

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